The Elgin Symphony Orchestra, led by Andrew Grams, has begun an action-packed season that pushes its musicians in new directions.

A New Season Dawns for Elgin Symphony Orchestra

Illinois’ four-time ‘Orchestra of the Year’ has a rich lineup in store for its upcoming season. Savor Elgin Symphony Orchestra’s symphonic sounds at one of its upcoming performances.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra, led by Andrew Grams, has begun an action-packed season that pushes its musicians in new directions.
The Elgin Symphony Orchestra, led by Andrew Grams, has begun an action-packed season that pushes its musicians in new directions.

The 66th season of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra (ESO) has only just begun, and it’s already hitting a high note. The acclaimed ESO was recently named 2016 Professional Orchestra of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras, the fourth time it has won the award.

“Obviously, we were surprised and very pleased to receive this prestigious honor from our peers,” says Dave Bearden, orchestra CEO. “It reflects on many of the attributes of this organization. It’s a very special recognition of the orchestra and of the amazing musicality of this group, led by Music Director Andrew Grams.”

This year’s accolades are just the latest in a string of recognition. Last year, Grams, then in his second year with ESO, was named Conductor of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras. This year, ESO earned an honorable mention for exemplary nonprofit management from the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management, a group at Chicago’s North Park University that seeks to boost nonprofit organizations. This latest award recognizes ESO’s ability to align its programs and goals, while achieving certain metrics.

“The mere process of applying for the award was very beneficial for the entire ESO organization,” Bearden says. “The hallmarks created for the application process are very specific and relevant to the management and stewardship of the ESO.”

Since its inception in 1950, ESO has made a priority of engaging the community in high-quality orchestral music. Its regular performance schedule brings the orchestra to Elgin’s Hemmens Cultural Center downtown and to Schaumburg’s Prairie Center for the Arts. No matter the venue, ESO has a major impact on the region’s cultural life.

“The ESO is an integral part of the Elgin community,” Bearden says. “Based on the number of dates, we are the largest user of the Hemmens Cultural Center, and the ESO brings thousands of visitors to the city. We have a patron base with great geographic diversity, and subscribers and attendees from more than 60 communities.”

Bearden estimates that nearly 20,000 people will experience an ESO performance this season. He enjoys it when these programs can speak to the individual in a meaningful way.

“As a professional orchestra, we strive to create unique experiences for the thousands of patrons who attend concerts each season,” Bearden says. “We try to develop exciting concert programs and stimulating learning opportunities for our patrons. Attending a live, musical performance is a one-of-a-kind experience. Each concert has its own unique characteristics and no two are ever the same.”

This latest season promises to bring many surprises and a lineup rich with classical favorites. The ESO season debut in September kicked off with a trifecta of Russian compositions by Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The rest of Grams’ classical programs contain works by Beethoven, Brahms, Dukas, Liadov, Mahler, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Respighi, Saint-Saëns, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Vaughn Williams. Many of the works have never before been performed by the ESO. Highlights of the upcoming season are as follows:

• Concerts on Nov. 5 and 6 feature an all-orchestral program with Grams conducting Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” and two works by Tchaikovsky, “Sleeping Beauty Suite” and “Swan Lake Suite.”

• “Inside the Music,” is a new, informal 90-minute program led by Grams. New to the ESO lineup, this program uses visuals and musical excerpts to help listeners understand the history and composition of a work to be performed at that weekend’s concert.  The program concludes with the ESO performing the work in its entirety. On Nov. 4, learn about Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” and on March 31, learn about Brahms’ “Symphony No. 4.”

• ESO rings in the holiday season on Dec. 10 and 11 with familiar holiday tunes and a sing-along. Special guests Elgin Master Chorale, Anima-Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus and the Midwest Dance Collective share the stage with ESO.

• On Jan. 7 and 8, 2017, guest violinist Angelo Xiang Yu makes his ESO debut as he plays Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 1.” The orchestra will also perform Stravinsky’s “Octet,” another first for the orchestra, and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3 Eroica.”

• The program on Feb. 11 and 12 transports audiences to Rome, with two more first performances for the ESO: Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake” and Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome.” The program also features Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and Saint-Saëns’ “Symphony No. 3.”

• Guest artist and audience favorite Natasha Paremski, piano, returns to the ESO to perform Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3,” on April 1 and 2. The program opens with Brahms’ “Symphony No. 4.”

• The season finale on May 6 and 7 features the Elgin Master Chorale and the ESO premier performance of Vaughn Williams’ “Serenade to Music,” Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Bearden anticipates another stellar season for ESO, and has his personal favorite circled on the calendar.

“I am personally biased toward Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ but it is not performed until the final concerts of the season,” he says.
As much as ESO is focused on its rousing season, it also takes great pride in its extensive work outside the concert hall.

Orchestra members deliver the healing power of music to area hospitals through programs like Musicians Care, a partnership with Elgin’s Advocate Sherman Hospital, and Music Heals, a collaboration with AMITA Health System. In both cases, musicians share their music in the hospital with patients and visitors.

“The incredible impact of these programs is reflected in the support from these two great hospital systems and in the letters and commendations the ESO receives from patients, family members, medical staff and other hospital personnel,” says Bearden. “These programs provide great relief during what can be one of the most stressful periods in a person’s life.

“We have also received numerous testimonials from hospital nurses and doctors attesting to the great pleasure and stress relief it provides to them as well,” he continues. “And ESO musicians say that this is the most rewarding part of their professional careers, knowing that their playing creates such a serene and calming environment for people at a time of great need.”

ESO touches the community in many other ways, too. Wendy Evans, the ESO’s education, outreach and orchestra personnel manager, sees how the orchestra impacts area students.

“Each year, the Elgin Symphony presents a week of field trip concerts, for children in grades 2 through 8, titled Ainsworth Concerts for Youth,” says Evans. “These memorable concerts bring in students from Elgin and from schools spanning a radius of more than 80 miles. By attending a concert, students are very often inspired to start studying a musical instrument. Studying great music enhances creativity in all learning.”

Bearden credits the ongoing success of ESO to a wide variety of people whose input helps each concert and community program to come alive.

“This Orchestra of the Year award also recognizes the contributions of our volunteers, who are necessary to create a successful orchestra season,” Bearden says. “This organization could not exist without the great work of the Board of Directors, the Orchestra Trustees, the Orchestra League and all the other volunteers who serve as ushers or on committees that advise and guide the Orchestra’s leadership team as we create new programs and community outreach efforts.”